barriers to entry

How can New York City fix its high school admissions system? Experts weigh in

PHOTO: Monica Disare
A panel of experts discusses how to improve the high school admissions process.

The city’s choice-based high school admissions system should, in theory, allow students to apply to any school in New York City and then deliver each a good match. But as any city eighth-grader can attest, the reality on the ground is far more complicated.

There are over different 400 high schools, with admissions governed by a confusing set of policies. It’s difficult for any student to navigate the system, but even harder for those without well-informed guidance counselors, savvy families, or English language skills.

With that in mind, panels of experts, put together by the Fordham Law School’s Feerick Center for Social Justice, gathered Tuesday to talk about what can be done. The following are some of their suggestions.

Idea #1: Reduce screened programs, add more educational option schools

A number of panelists argued that the high school system is unbalanced and needs a serious shake-up.

Some said the city should reduce the number of screened programs, which can choose students based on factors including grades, attendance, interviews or portfolios. Screened programs currently comprise about a third of high school programs in the city, while lower-performing students are clustered in the remaining schools.

“One of the biggest issues with this process is the screened programs,” said Shalema Henderson, assistant director of youth initiatives at College Access: Research and Action, a local nonprofit. “It just has kind of perpetuated the inequity that exists in the schools.”

In place of screened programs, panelists suggested the city create more “educational option” programs, which are designed to enroll students at different academic levels. They currently make up about 23 percent of school programs.

City officials at the conference appeared open to this idea. Representatives from the Department of Education said they have not created any screened programs since 2014, and they have been looking for ways to add educational option programs.

Idea #2: Get rid of priority groups

Some schools give admissions priority for certain subgroups of students, such as those who live within geographic areas or attend open houses. But earning priority can present challenges for low-income families, panelists said.

Chalkbeat has reported that attending an open house, for example, takes time, job flexibility and English skills that many disadvantaged families don’t have.

Another contentious priority group is comprised of students who live in District 2 in Manhattan, a relatively wealthy district that includes most of Manhattan and has some of the most sought-after schools in the city. Since many of the slots at its top schools go to District 2 residents, students from other, less wealthy areas of the city are effectively shut out, critics argue.

The Department of Education indicated that getting rid of District 2 priority would take more time and discussion.

“All of these things that represent historical practice … are going to take a long time to move,” said Amy Basile, director of high school admissions for the department. “And it’s going to take a lot of community involvement.”

Idea #3: Support for middle schools, parents

Middle schools are key to helping students navigate the high school admissions process, but often school staff — particularly guidance counselors — do not have the support, knowledge or time they need to fully help students through the process, panelists said.

Basile sees potential to utilize “College Access for All,” a new initiative started under Mayor Bill de Blasio, to galvanize resources and make admissions a more structured part of the school curriculum.

The city is also trying to increase transparency for families. For the first time this year, the High School Directory includes the percentage of students who received priority at each school and the actual GPA ranges of students who were admitted to the schools. The city also started a new website where students can search for information about schools.

Megan Moskop, a teacher and high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Manhattan, is running a class for her eighth-grade students on high school admissions.

Moskop praised the DOE for helping to craft the curriculum, but she said there is a limit to its potential success. While some students have supportive families, who keep spreadsheets of schools and visit as many as 10 open houses, others are new arrivals to the country barely managing to navigate the shelter system, she said. One class alone is not enough to level the playing field, she added.

“What I’m finding is, even with all those resources and guidelines and set structures, the process is too much to navigate for many of my eighth-graders,” Moskop said.

college prep

One Jeffco program is taking on a big problem: Many low-income students accepted to college never attend

Jefferson graduates take a personality test to prepare for their first day of classes at Red Rocks Community College. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

On a recent evening, a dozen 2017 graduates of Edgewater’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School were back at their alma mater, split into small groups at tables in the school library.

Community volunteers walked through a “pre-college checklist” with tips about paying tuition online, buying books and getting a student number. Most had already done all of those things.

There was even a personality test — designed to help the students get in touch with the traits that could help or hurt their chances of college success.

This mentorship program, in its first year, is designed to address a problem that often flies under the radar in the discussion about increasing college access: nationally, 40 percent of low-income students who have been accepted to college don’t show up to the first day, studies show.  

Many Jefferson students will be the first in their families to attend college, said Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, which is running the mentorship program. Their parents might not have had any exposure to the process before, he said, rendering them easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of steps necessary to enroll at school.

“We have a high number of students that leave saying they’re going to college and a low number that actually go,” said Nathan Chamberlain, a counselor at Jefferson.

The program began in the fall and picked up again in June with a week of sessions including college visits, placement test preparation and other resources to help Jefferson’s college-bound seniors.

Edgewater Collective has held monthly mentoring sessions since, inviting community members and school staff to help students with tasks such as getting ID cards and registering for classes.

“The big thing we’ve noticed this summer in just kind of walking alongside students through this process is that a number of the roadblocks that pop up would be hard if we weren’t walking alongside them,” Newton said.

In the program’s first year, Newton said about half of Jefferson’s college-bound seniors participated. He said he hopes to expand the program to include not only more students continuing their academic careers, but also provide career readiness training.

“We did a lot of this on the fly,” said Chamberlain, the school counselor, adding that the organization will start the sessions earlier in the future. “It was easier for kids to fall through the cracks, and we didn’t have a chance to follow up with some.”

Newton said community members and local organizations such as Red Rocks Community College and Goodwill Industries loaned time and resources to the program’s pilot year. That included support to fund scholarships. About 80 percent of the college-bound graduates have scholarships, Newton said.

Additionally, Edgewater Collective teamed up with the nonprofit PCs for People to provide new computers to program participants who attend 80 percent or more of their first three weeks of classes.

“Incentives are great but more than just the incentives, we’re overdoing these first two years because we’re trying to create a culture,” Chamberlain said. “When you talk about a first generation school like ours, college isn’t the buzz … We’ve put incentives in place to have a mob mentality, in a positive way, of ‘everyone’s doing this, so I should do it too.’”

pipeline problems

City pols’ report questions the fairness of starting new gifted classes in third grade

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, left, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, right, hosted a task force to discuss issues in gifted education and specialized high schools.

When the New York City education department recently opened new gifted classes in historically underrepresented neighborhoods, it altered its approach to admissions.

By starting the programs in third grade rather than kindergarten and changing how students got in, experts said enrollment would be more fair. Black and Hispanic students make up only 27 percent of students in gifted classes, though they comprise close to 70 percent of students citywide.

But a report released Wednesday by the Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents questions that approach, suggesting that starting in third grade is too late.

“Why deprive all gifted students of a chance at early advanced coursework?” the report asks. “Couldn’t additional services lessen the gap between ability and achievement at a young age?”

Most gifted programs start in kindergarten, with admission based on the results of formal tests. Historically, students in poorer neighborhoods take and pass the tests in much lower numbers than those in wealthier school districts.

In spring 2016, the education department opened new gifted classes in four districts that had gone years without — districts 7 and 12 in the Bronx and 16 and 23 in Brooklyn. Those programs admit students in third grade based on their classroom grades and teacher recommendations.

Using multiple measures instead of a single test score and starting the process later could make it less likely that students are admitted based on solely on the advantages they bring from home — such as the ability to prep for a test.

“This is good news that they’re using multiple measures and they’re opening up access to these programs,” researcher Allison Roda said at the time, though she added that she has reservations about separating students into gifted classrooms in the first place.

But the new report on gifted education from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. raises questions about whether the changes are truly fair. Basing admissions on teacher recommendations may be problematic, the report argues, because bias could play a role in classifying students as gifted or disabled. And, most New York City students still enter gifted from a very early age.

“The DOE is adding third- and fourth-grade classes, but has still not committed to kindergarten, first, and second grade programs in all districts,” the report notes. “We demand this commitment to programs from the earliest ages equally throughout the city.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Universal gifted testing for pre-K students, unless parents choose to opt out.
  • Creating access to gifted classrooms in every community.
  • Expanding gifted options in middle school at either the district or citywide level. Research has found that just a handful of middle schools are major feeders for students who go on to specialized high schools, which are themselves starkly segregated.

In an emailed statement, an education department spokesman wrote: “We’ll review the recommendations in the report, and look forward to working with the borough presidents to increase access to high-quality schools.”